Opinion

Brownback deserved more Democratic support

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback talks about his term as governor during an interview at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan, on Dec. 20, 2017. Brownback is the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback talks about his term as governor during an interview at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., on Dec. 20, 2017. Brownback is the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel; caption amended by RNS)

(RNS) — The Senate just confirmed President Trump’s nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Vice President Mike Pence had to be brought in to cast the tiebreaking vote Wednesday (Jan. 24) to end Senate Democrats’ block of the nomination.

That’s a shame, and here’s why.

First, the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom has been mostly apolitical and has enjoyed bipartisan support ever since President Clinton created it by signing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which the Senate unanimously passed.

Second, unlike some Trump nominees, who received major and minor appointments in spite of being unqualified, Brownback is indeed qualified for this role. As a U.S. representative and senator, Brownback showed leadership and interest on IRF issues, gaining knowledge and expertise that will serve him well as ambassador.

Third, Democrats’ opposition to Brownback rests on several misguided premises revealing, unfortunately, that the party and the interests that control it may not understand what the IRF office does and why it is important.

Senate Democrats’ chief objection seemed to be that Brownback believes that abortion is wrong and marriage is by nature the union of a man and a woman. Underlying this is a fear that, as ambassador, Brownback would somehow be able to use his office to advance a personal social agenda.

There is nothing Brownback could do to roll back abortion rights or the legal protections LGBT people have gained in the United States.

And to suppose that as IRF ambassador, Brownback could enact and enforce a conservative social agenda in other countries not only unfairly impugns Brownback’s integrity, but also reveals an ignorance about this unique diplomatic role.

I say all this as an unlikely Brownback supporter. I think he has promoted bad policies, both as a congressman and more famously as the governor of Kansas.

I was disappointed when Brownback flew to Washington last fall to rally Senate Republicans behind Trump’s tax plan. That seemed unbecoming for someone pending confirmation for a role that must be as apolitical and nonpartisan as possible. It made me question his judgment somewhat. And it made me question whether a career politician is well-suited for this unique and vital role.

But the facts remain. Presidents have the prerogative to choose their ministers, advisers and diplomats. This is a political appointment, but it is nothing like appointing a 24-year-old campaign aide to a key post in the office combating the opioid crisis and handing plum European ambassadorships to political supporters (or their wives).

Trump’s nomination of Brownback is a good thing, putting a qualified man in an important job. It may be the case that Brownback, who is more widely known than any of his predecessors, could elevate the office and generate more interest, media coverage and support within and beyond the government. Maybe a reinvigorated focus on international religious freedom could help revive a floundering State Department and a dispirited diplomatic corps. All this would be welcome.

The post had been vacant for over a year, which is too long in a world where untold millions face persecution for their beliefs.

I know many stories of American leaders going to parts of the world where people face discrimination or even persecution for their beliefs. Often their first reaction upon meeting an American ambassador or leading religious freedom advocate is, “I did not know anyone cared.”

America cares about freedom of conscience and belief. That caring is part of our national creed and our gift to the world.

I would not vote for Sam Brownback for elective office. I certainly did not vote for the president who nominated him.

But we need to get back to common sense and common decency. Democrats: Sam Brownback is not your enemy. He is your countryman. He deserves your support and best wishes as he takes on a sensitive and vital role.

He certainly has mine.

(Jacob Lupfer is a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Jacob Lupfer

25 Comments

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  • The author would be well advised to stop lobbing calumny (@Pontifex btw) at the Democratic party and focus on learning something about the separation of powers and Brownback’s record. Yes, Spanky Forbes is entitled to choose his ambassadors — but our system makes them subject to Senate approval. Nearly half those senators are Democrats. Deal with it.
    Second, while Brownback might not directly be able to affect abortion rights in other countries, he would be able to control what issues the IRF focuses on. His history includes the typical hysteria over “Shariah law” and the purported banning of Syrian refugees from Kansas. It also includes support for an extreme far-right “peace plan” in Israel that includes dismantling the Palestinian Authority, annexing the West Bank, and expelling all Arabs to Jordan. I’m not going to accept that he’ll be a fair influence just because he otherwise seems like a nice guy and cares about Darfur.
    Third, Brownback has shown himself in Kansas to be an inept executive and essentially left the state in financial disarray. The IRF is an important position and it should not be a consolation prize.

  • “First, the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom has been mostly apolitical.” This man is a politician, with a party and an agenda he supports. It seems to me rather naïve to suppose he will leave all that behind and become “apolitical”, simply defending the religious freedom of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Zoroastrians, and the multitude of versions of Christians, found all around the world.

  • Funny how the author lists half a dozen reasons no one should support Brownback for any public office ever again, yet insists that backing him is a return to “common sense and common decency.” The author acknowledges that Brownback’s religious views on abortion and same-sex marriage do not reflect the laws of the nation he would represent. How that’s a return to “common sense and common decency” is beyond me and probably beyond anyone else who finds religious opposition to those laws to be neither decent nor sensible. Worse, the author imagines the office to be “most apolitical,” as if Brownback’s own religious and political affiliations will not shape what “religious freedom” causes he takes up. Telling us the obvious–that Brownback can’t roll back laws in the US–is as insulting as it is beside the point.

  • After the economic disaster he perpetrated upon Kansas as governor, he shouldn’t hold any position, anywhere. The man is a disgrace.

  • Sorry, Brownback is not a good man. He shouldn’t be appointed as dogcatcher. He’s a christofascist who when first elected to the Senate over Jill Docking, robocalls asked voters, “did you know Jill Docking is a Jew?”

  • Religious freedom for whom, Mr. Lupfer?

    If I were religious freedom ambassador, I would be the kind that encourages a complete separation of any religion from the apparatus of government, so that the government does not become a tool in enforcing one religion’s purely theological concerns onto other religions that don’t share those particular and peculiar theological concerns.

    That,s something that Brownback is constitutionally incapable of doing. For Brownback, religious freedom for him. For everyone else, it is the freedom to follow the religion of him and his fellow travellers

  • It seems hypocritical to me that this author tries to defend Sam Brownback first by downplaying his ability to influence foreign policy on LGBTQ and women’s rights but then turn around and argue the ambassador for religious freedom is an important role because it can influence religious freedom in other countries. You can’t have it both ways and claim it’s a meaningless ceremonial role with no political influence but then argue it’s of supreme importance when it comes to promoting your religious privilege. There is no such thing as a purely non-partisan government authority and no government position is inherently worthy of deserving blind support.

  • I disagree. Brownback’s record demonstrates a strong partisan bent toward favoring the interests of conservative sects of Christianity over and against those of other religious groups. And, as someone noted below, Brownback’s embrace of evangelical “historian” David Barton is problematic.

  • One man’s “purely theological concerns” is another man’s “right reason applied to observed reality”.

    In our system people are allowed to bring their thoughts to the process whether they get them from a religion, looking at trees, or sitting alone in dark closets.

    That’s actual religious freedom.

  • Brownback is nothing more than a Dominionist thug who was an incompetent governor. He deserves zero support for anything or any post.

  • While appreciating the spirit of what seems to lie behind this strained, contradictory attempt at generous civility by a young scholar, an expansive appreciation of religious freedom would suggest that Brownback is the very antithesis of what it means to value and defend the free expression of religion. The optics of such a selection could hardly be worse when we take into account that most of the world’s religious engagement lies far outside of the very narrow bounds of what is deemed acceptable by white, U.S., conservative evangelicals. This cynical selection is another embarrassing blight on our professed ideals

  • And yet you howl like little babies if you are on the receiving end. Funny how that ever present assumption of privilege and superiority works for you when it is to the advantage of that wholly imaginary superiority.

  • Brownback deserved more democratic support if only as a means of getting him out of Kansas. No other reason.

  • “Brownback’s embrace of evangelical “historian” David Barton is problematic.”

    Its an admission that he opposes religious freedom. David Barton not only argues against the separation of church and state but has publicly denounced free exercise of religion for faiths other than his own.

  • Meh. doesn’t deserve anything other than a good beating. The people of Kansas elected him, let them suffer the consequences or do something about it themselves.

  • The receiving end of what particularly? YOUR religious thoughts?

    Yes, your entire shtick about the “assumption of privilege and superiority” is based on a “wholly imaginary superiority” – in your imagination.

  • “…the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom has been mostly apolitical and has enjoyed bipartisan support ever since President Clinton created it by signing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which the Senate unanimously passed.”

    The danger to an appointment of someone like Brownback is that this office is not there to promote Christianity, Christian morals, to favor Christians and the practice of Christianity in this country or any place in the world. The danger in putting someone like Brownback in that office, especially with so much Evangelical influence in the Trump administration, is that the real issues of religious freedom will take a backseat to Evangelicals ideas of what is important in religious freedom for Evangelicals.

    This is taking someone who does not represent mainstream America and putting him in a position to forward a view of religious freedom that is not what we really stand for as a nation and is not what most Americans believe is important in protecting religious freedom while protecting individual rights. Those rights include LGBTQI people, people of color, people of different ethnicities, the right of Muslims to practice their faith, and, very important, the right and power of women to be leaders in all aspects of life.

    I am glad the Dems made the point that Brownback is not the right person – because he isn’t.

  • Someone who supports using religion as an excuse to deny goods, services and access to government they are entitled to knows all sorts of things on the receiving end of such beliefs. They just want to be the perpetrators rather than being the victims of it. 🙂

  • Ho hum.

    More nonsense from someone who supports using hatred for religion as an excuse to commandeer persons and property to perform abortions.

  • As a representative of the Trump administration and the United States on religious matters, Brownback now has the power to weaponize the religious right’s twisted version of ‘religious freedom.’ How wonderful.

    Brownback knows who butters his bread. What motive does he have to advocate on behalf of non-Christian religious minorities anywhere in the world? Doing so would only serve to alienate supporters and run afoul of his own beliefs concerning the supremacy of Christianity.

  • .
    Lupfer: “First, the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom has been mostly apolitical and has enjoyed bipartisan support ever since President Clinton created it by signing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which the Senate unanimously passed.”

    Then why in the world select such a hyper-partisan political and religious ideologue as Sam Brownback to lead it?

    Just last year as Governor, he vetoed a strongly bipartisan bill to repeal his tax roll-backs; his veto was promptly over-ridden — on a bipartisan basis, of course.

    “Second, unlike some Trump nominees, who received major and minor appointments in spite of being unqualified, Brownback is indeed qualified for this role. As a U.S. representative and senator, Brownback showed leadership and interest on IRF issues, gaining knowledge and expertise that will serve him well as ambassador.”

    Citations needed.

    “Third, Democrats’ opposition to Brownback rests on several misguided premises revealing, unfortunately, that the party and the interests that control it may not understand what the IRF office does and why it is important.”

    I think Senate Democrats have a pretty firm grasp of what is supposed to be meant by “Religious Freedom”.

    And I concur with their judgment that it would be an egregious error to have the IRF office be led by a member of one of the most discriminatory sects (Roman Catholic) of one of the most exclusionary religions (Christianity) in the world, especially when his own actions and behavior are considered.

    As a Senator in 2007, he blocked the nomination of a federal judge on the sole basis that the nominee had once in 2002 attended a same-sex commitment ceremony of a next door neighbor who had been a close childhood friend of her daughters.

    As Governor, Brownback signed Islamophobic legislation and withdrew Kansas from the federal refugee resettlement program, in order to deny refuge to Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war.

    Robert McCaw, CAIR: “Only under the Trump administration would someone so opposed to the constitutional rights of an American faith community be appointed to safeguarding international religious freedom.”

    The ACLU: “In Gov. Brownback’s view, ‘religious freedom’ has meant issuing a license to discriminate against others, especially against LGBT Kansans.”

    The “premises” of the opposition to Brownback’s nomination are captured well here, and are far from “misguided”:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Brownback#U.S._Ambassador-at-Large_for_International_Religious_Freedom

    The facts remain — this is a political appointment.
    .

  • .
    “The post had been vacant for over a year, which is too long in a world where untold millions face persecution for their beliefs.”

    Brownback cares only about persecution of some Christians.

    “America cares about freedom of conscience and belief. That caring is part of our national creed and our gift to the world.”

    Maybe America does, but Sam Brownback emphatically does not.
    .

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